According to magic historian Gabe Fajuri, President of Potter and Potter, an auction house specializing in magic, the collection includes “four or five which are particulary uncommon or scarce and one or two which are rare and maybe unique.” He points to a stylized red Houdini poster, heralding the escape artist as “Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation.” “I have not seen that elsewhere, ever.” says Fajuri. Another poster features a striking illustration of Houdini crouched over, bound in manacles around his wrists and ankles, dressed only in skimpy red, white, and blue shorts with gold fringe. “Certainly the Houdini in chains is one of two or one of very few and that’s the best poster of the bunch for a lot of reasons,” says Fajuri. The collection includes a third Houdini poster which has not yet been digitized and which also is quite rare according to Fajuri. It shows a fanciful illustration of Houdini in a tuxedo elevated over a barrel, inside of a prison cell. Houdini is surrounded by devil and angel characters and the poster promotes “Houdini’s Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery.” [Story continues on next page]
Annemarie van Roessel, Assistant Curator of the Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division suggests the posters also will be of interest for insight into subjects other than magic. “The posters are important not just in terms of documenting these wonderful magicians and their acts, but also in terms of commercial art and graphic design. The idea of promotion is certainly a critical aspect of performance and these posters do a magnificent job of conveying that message, often in a very narrative way. In addition to magic historians, there are art and popular culture historians who are studying the artists and lithographic companies who created these works. . . .They also provide important context to the books and papers of these magicians elsewhere in our collection--and in collections held by other institutions and private collectors."
Although the original collector of the posters must have thought that glueing them into a scrapbook was the best way to save them, in fact it ultimately caused the problems encountered today and made the process of preserving them very challenging. “They were pasted front to back on each page of this scrapbook,” said Grace Owen-Weiss, the Library Conservator who oversaw the treatment of the posters. “And because it was made of very poor quality material to begin with it had deteriorated over the years….the scrapbook pages were crumbling, causing fracturing, tearing, crumbling of the magic posters attached to them.” Most of the posters were pasted across the spread of two scrapbook pages meaning they were folded when the book was closed. “The way they were in the book, to get a complete poster was sometimes very difficult.,” Owen-Weiss continues. “If you would bathe some of the leaves to remove one poster entirely, you would get two halves of two other posters. So it was very complicated.”
The Conservators also had to grapple with how to deal with missing areas. “This is a tricky thing to do,” said Owen-Weiss, “Because we are conservators and not restorers, there are all sorts of ethical considerations. Owen-Weiss noticed that the chomolithographic printing process created a particular ink pattern. “So I started playing with air brushes to get that speckled pattern and the layering of color to kind of simulate the pattern of the lost areas without actually replicating them. Your eye will blend it all in if you’re two or three feet away, but if you are up close you can see where I have mended. That is what a conservator ethically wants to do. We don’t really ever want to cosmetically mask, to try and fool you into thinking that it was never damaged. You should be able to see that it was damaged but repaired.”
The Library’s collections contain numerous scrapbooks with unique or otherwise rare materials documenting magic history. The poster scrapbook, according to Owen-Weiss, bears a stamp of the Society for American Magicians. The Library had a close connection with Saram Ellison, a founder of the S. A. M. who donated numerous other important scrapbooks from around the same time period, and it is possible that he helped arrange for the donation of this volume to the Library. Additional posters from the scrapbook are stored in acid-free and climate controlled conditions by the Library with the potential they could be restored in the future.